Syrian activists operate secret hospitals to treat wounded dissidents

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PBS Frontline reporter Ramita Navai meets four soldiers on the run at a secret location deep in the Syrian countryside. The soldiers say they deserted the Army because they were forced to shoot at protesters. (Photo courtesy of PBS Frontline.)

Foreign media aren't allowed into Syria to report on the protests and demonstrations going on there.

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But news is trickling out slowly as western journalists sneak into the country, report for days or weeks at a time and then sneak back out to publish the details about what they've learned.

Reporter Ramita Navai snuck into Syria and spent more than two weeks there posing as a tourist, but secretly interviewing and documenting the actual conditions and violence.

"In a location on the outskirts of Damascus, we met an opposition doctor," Navai said. "He spends every night treating the wounded."

And he's not doing it at local hospitals, because government militia are raiding the hospitals and shutting out anyone whom they believe has been a protester, Navai found.

Instead, a network of secret, make-shift hospitals have been established around the country.

"We got access via the activists who we were effectively embedded with," Navai said. "It was really quite an operation just getting us to these secret hospitals."

She described the hospitals as almost surreal. Virtually every patient is suffering from a gunshot wound. Many of them are children. The sterillizing solution they use is stored in cut out Coke bottles.

What equipment they do have, they share with other hospitals. It's stored at a warehouse, away from the patients and hospitals, so that if there is a raid, the equipment is more likely to survive and a new hospital can be set up.

"Within 10 minutes, they can get operating tables, heart monitors to makeshift rooms that operate as operating theatres or to the secret hospitals themselves," Navai said.

Navai said she met one patient who had actually been taken to a traditional hospital. The state militia, however, raided the hospital and if not for the quick thinking of a sympathetic doctor, the man likely would have found himself seized by the militia or killed on the spot. Protesters say the militia often kidnap the injured, torture them, kill them and then return the bodies to family members a week later.

Instead, the doctor told militia that the patient had died and wheeled him to the morgue. There, he was taken straight to a secret hospital for treatment.

"There are few doctors who were willing to risk their lives to help injured protesters, because it's so dangerous," Navai said.

One doctor told Navai he himself knew of 10 doctors who had been imprisoned for treating protesters.

Syrian officials have denied all allegations of mistreating protesters, though Amnesty International released a 39-page report documenting just this type of abuse.

For more on this, check out Navai's documentary on PBS Frontline, set to air on Nov. 8.